Super PACs and New Election Rules Are Changing the Game in California
In Southern California and across the country, that old axiom is being put to a new test: all politics may be local, but the dollars are definitely long distance. "SoCal Connected's" Vince Gonzales checks out one race that exemplifies this new reality -- one in which Super PACs and some new rules approved by the voters have dramatically changed the choices on Election Day.
Vince Gonzales/Reporter: California is reeling this election year. Earthquake country's political landscape is being rocked by a series of changes that have caused old political dynasties to crumble and forced long-standing battle lines to be redrawn.
One surprising skirmish is being fought among the modest homes and quiet streets of Congressional District 31 in the Inland Empire, where Gary Miller and Bob Dutton are facing off - thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court Decision that allows unlimited outside spending in elections by various groups - including Super PACs - cash has flooded into the state.
In fact, at one point, District 31 was the top recipient of outside spending in California. Most of that money -- about $2 million -- comes from the National Association of Realtors to support the campaign of Congressman Miller.
Miller [to audience]: It's good to be here today.
Gonzales: Miller, a former developer who is considered a friend to Realtors and builders in Washington, sits on the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees the real estate and insurance industries.
Miller [from archival video]: It's nice to go into a real estate office and actually see lists of buyers.
Gonzales: In just one week recently, the National Association of Realtors spent almost $850,000 on mailers and TV ads backing the congressman.
Miller: If you look at my history over the years, I've always worked on issues that involved housing. That's been my passion because that's what gave me an opportunity in life. And all of a sudden I was in a very tough race and my friends covered my back. So, to say that your friends come to your aid when you need it -- God bless 'em. I didn't know they were going to be there. They showed up. It's nice to have the cavalry with you once in a while.
Gonzales: Miller needs a little help from his friends. His old district was a casualty of another election change -- this one approved by California voters in 2008. A non-partisan commission -- set up by Prop 20 -- redrew his old district and made his seat competitive. So, Miller jumped to the newly created District 31-- a place where he says he plans to retire one day and has family but was not well-known to voters. All that outside money has been used to build Miller's profile here and he makes no apology for it.
Miller: They've come to my aid and I just, I'm real thankful for it. So, it's not something I'm embarrassed of at all. I have a record of working very hard in the housing industry and people in the industry support me.
Dutton: It does kind of surprise me the kind of dollars that are being spent.
Gonzales: To defeat you.
Dutton: Yeah! I just, I'm really in awe. That's all you can say. I'm in awe.
Gonzales: Miller's opponent is State Senator Bob Dutton. He's received less than a hundred thousand dollars from super PACs.
Dutton: These are people from the outside trying to dictate or control who the local people choose as their representative and that is one of the problems -- these outside interests -- and I think that's also what people are fed up with.
Gonzales: People like local resident Jill Vassilakos-Long, who doesn't like the idea of all that outside spending.
Vassilakos-Long: That astonishes me. I don't think of us as that prominent. We have never been that wealthy. It makes me wonder if people think that it's possible to buy votes more easily in our district.
Gonzales: And she's not thrilled with her ballot choices.
Vassilakos-Long: What do I think of Dutton or Miller? ... Well... [smiles]
Gonzales: Thanks to another election change this year -- this life-long Democrat will now have to choose between two republicans she's never heard of -- Miller and Dutton -- even though the majority of voters in District 31 are Democrats.
Gonzales: This one-party ballot is the odd result of California's Prop 14 -- passed in 2010. It set up a system where the top two candidates in the primary -- regardless of party -- are the only ones fall voters can choose from.
Pete Aguilar -- a rising star in the local Democratic Party -- was thought to have the race sewn up, but Democratic turnout was low and split among multiple candidates. Aguilar failed to make the top two by just 1500 votes, leaving Dutton and Miller as the only ones on the ballot.
Vassilakos-Long: I think if Pete Aguilar were in the race on November 6th, I think that he would win, but he's not going to be, because the open primary is going to give us the two top Republicans instead.
Gonzales: Both Republicans hope to reassure any voters who feel disenfranchised by the ballot.
Dutton: I have a track record in representing the people in this district. I've never one time whenever I was helping a small business owner or helping a constituent in the district, I never asked about their party registration.
Miller: I don't care if they're Republican, Democrat, Independent, I really don't care. I want to talk to them about the issues. I want to talk to them about my vision for this district -- what I want to do based on what I've done in my 14 years in Congress.
Doug Johnson: It's a bit of a mess and the voters are confused, the candidates are confused, and the political consultants are confused -- trying to figure out how do all these factors work together: the redistricting reform, the top two primary, and Super PACs. Those are all coming together at one time. It's almost California's own perfect storm, and they're trying to figure that out.
Gonzales: Doug Johnson -- a fellow at the Rose Institute at Claremont-McKenna College -- has been studying the races this year.
Gonzales [to Dutton]: Is this what you expected when the laws passed, that these kinds of things would happen in normally districts where nobody poured outside money in?
Johnson: It is one of the interesting things that voters say they like competitive races and of course we want elections to matter, but if we have a competitive election, you get money because there is something at stake, and so the money comes in hopefully from the people in the district supporting their local candidates, but there is no way to stop the outside money either.
Gonzales: So people see an opportunity here to shift the balance of power and the money starts flowing in.
Gonzales: Johnson has a message for voters struggling with the triple hit of redistricting, primary reform, and Super PAC spending.
Johnson: It is definitely better than the old system. It's not the idyllic world that some of the proponents of some of the reforms played out but it is a big improvement and I think it will just get more interesting over time.
Gonzales: And no matter how Californians feel the day after the election, there's one important thing to remember -- except for the ruling on outside spending, it was the state's citizens who voted to shake things up and set in motion this year's changes. For "SoCal Connected," I'm Vince Gonzales.
For more on the influence of money in politics, check out KCET's Ballot Brief to see who's funding California's propositions this election season.